All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

by TAD SIMONS, Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine

December 19, 2008

An invention of Theatre Latté Da mastermind Peter Rothstein, All is Calm tells the true story of one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of warfare, a night during the first year of World War I when German and British soldiers laid down their weapons and sang drinking songs and Christmas carols to each other until dawn, then played a spirited game of soccer and buried each other's dead before getting back to the business of killing. 

Originally developed last year as a radio play, the show was essentially a staged reading with hardly any stagecraft whatsoever. But it was so well received that this year it re-emerged as a more refined production, albeit one that utilizes only three wooden boxes and a little stage smoke to achieve its haunting, mesmerizing effects. That leaves only voices — of the remarkable nine-man choral ensemble Cantus, and three actors who guide the narrative by reciting verbatim from letters and journals of the soldiers who were there — to tell the story of what happened on that historic night. 

The genius of this show lies in its restraint. The soldier/singers wear black coats and the entire stage is black and empty except for a small riser. Director Rothstein could have used bomb sound effects and flashes of light when the soldiers are relating their scenes of wartime, but he doesn't — instead he lets the audience imagine what those bombs sounded like, a technique that pulls the audience into the action in a way that overt, literal depictions of action simply can't.

But it's the voices of the Cantus singers that make most of the magic in this show. Even when they're singing moldy oldies like "Pack up Your Troubles" (in your old kit bag, and smile, smile . . .) or holiday staples like "O Tannenbaum" and "Good King Wencenslas," the arrangements are sophisticated and the execution superb. Cantus' version of "Silent Night" blends German and English lyrics with six-part harmonies to create an almost unbearably sad coda to the events of that night. In fact, the sound Cantus produced on Friday night was so undeniably sacred that, when the show ended, no one in the audience Friday night wanted to be the first to break the spell. We all sat in silence, wondering who would be the first to clap.

Michael Hefty